Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter IX

J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.


Chapter IX

THE MARCHESE avoided speaking of the matter; but had long secret conversations with the Abbé. When the Company was met, he often asked for music; a request to which they willingly assented, as each was glad to be delivered from the charge of talking. Thus they lived for some time, till it was observed that he was making preparations for departure. One day he said to Wilhelm: “I wish not to disturb the remains of this beloved child; let her rest in the place where she loved and suffered: but her friends must promise to visit me in her native country; in the scene where she was born and bred; they must see the pillars and statues, of which a dim idea remained with her. I will lead you to the bays, where she liked so well to roam and gather pebbles. You, at least, young friend, shall not escape the gratitude of a family that stands so deeply indebted to you. Tomorrow I set out on my journey. The Abbé is acquainted with the whole history of this matter: he will tell it you again. He could pardon me when grief interrupted my recital; as a third party he will be enabled to narrate the incidents with more connexion. If, as the Abbé had proposed, you like to follow me in travelling over Germany, you shall be heartily welcome. Leave not your boy behind: at every little inconvenience which he causes us, we will again remember your attentive care of my poor niece.”

The same evening, our party was surprised by the arrival of the Countess. Wilhelm trembled in every joint as she entered: she herself, though forewarned, kept close by her sister, who speedily reached her a chair. How singularly simple was her attire, how altered was her form; Wilhelm scarcely dared to look at her: she saluted him with a kindly air; a few general words addressed to him did not conceal her sentiments and feelings. The Marchese had retired betimes; and as the company were not disposed to part so early, the Abbé now produced a manuscript. “The singular narrative which was intrusted to me,” said he, “I forthwith put on paper. The case where pen and ink should least of all be spared, is in recording the particular circumstances of remarkable events.” They informed the Countess of the matter; and the Abbé read as follows, in the name of the Marchese:

  • “Many men as I have seen, I still regard my father as a very extraordinary person. His character was noble and upright; his ideas were enlarged, I may even say great; to himself he was severe; in all his plans there was a rigid order, in all his operations an unbroken perseverance. In one sense, therefore, it was easy to transact and live with him: yet owing to the very qualities which made it so, he never could accommodate himself to life; for he required from the state, from his neighbours, from his children and his servants, the observance of all the laws which he had laid upon himself. His most moderate demands became exorbitant by his rigour: and he never could attain to enjoyment, for nothing ever was completed as he had forecast it. At the moment when he was erecting a palace, laying out a garden, or acquiring a large estate in the highest cultivations, I have seen him inwardly convinced, with the sternest ire, that Fate had doomed him to do nothing but abstain and suffer. In his exterior, he maintained the greatest dignity; if he jested, it was but displaying the preponderancy of his understanding. Censure was intolerable to him; the only time I ever saw him quite transported with rage, was once when he heard that one of his establishments was spoken of as something ludicrous. In the same spirit, he had settled the disposal of his children and his fortune. My eldest brother was educated as a person that had large estates to look for. I was to embrace the clerical profession; the youngest was to be a soldier. I was of a lively temper; fiery, active, quick, apt for corporeal exercises: the youngest rather seemed inclined to an enthusiastic quietism; devoted to the sciences, to music and poetry. It was not till after the hardest struggle, the maturest conviction of the impossibility of his project, that our father, still reluctantly, agreed to let us change vocations; and although he saw us both contented, he could never suit himself to this arrangement, but declared that nothing good would come of it. The older he grew, the more isolated did he feel himself from all society. At last he came to live almost entirely alone. One old friend, who had served in the German armies, who had lost his wife in the campaign, and brought a daughter of about ten years of age along with him, remained his only visitor. This person bought a fine little property beside us: he used to come and see my father on stated days of the week, and at stated hours; his little daughter often came along with him. He was never heard to contradict my father; who at length grew perfectly habituated to him, and endured him as the only tolerable company he had. After our father’s death, we easily observed that this old gentleman had not been visiting for naught, that his compliances had been rewarded by an ample settlement. He enlarged his estates; his daughter might expect a handsome portion. The girl grew up, and was extremely beautiful: my elder brother often joked with me about her, saying I should go and court her.
  • “Meanwhile brother Augustin, in the seclusion of his cloister, had been spending his years in the strangest state of mind. He abandoned himself wholly to the feeling of a holy enthusiasm, to those half-spiritual, half-physical, emotions, which, as they for a time exalted him to the third heaven, ere long sank him down to an abyss of powerlessness and vacant misery. While my father lived, no change could be contemplated: what indeed could we have asked for or proposed? After the old man’s death, our brother visited us frequently: his situation, which at first afflicted us, in time became much more tolerable: for his reason had at length prevailed. But the more confidently reason promised him complete recovery and contentment on the pure part of nature, the more vehemently did he require of us to free him from his vows. His thoughts, he let us know, were turned upon Sperata, our fair neighbour.
  • “My elder brother had experienced too much suffering from the harshness of our father, to look on the condition of the youngest without sympathy. We spoke with the family confessor, a worthy old man; we signified to him the double purpose of our brother, and requested him to introduce and expedite the business. Contrary to custom, he delayed: and at last, when Augustin pressed us, and we recommended the affair more keenly to the clergyman, he had nothing left but to impart the strange secret to us.
  • “Sperata was our sister, and that by both her parents. Our mother had declared herself with child at a time when both she and our father were advanced in years; a similar occurrence had shortly before been made the subject of some merriment in our neighbourhood; and our father, to avoid such ridicule, determined to conceal this late lawful fruit of love as carefully as people use to conceal its earlier accidental fruits. Our mother was delivered secretly; the child was carried to the country; and the old friend of the family, who, with the confessor, had alone been trusted with the secret, easily engaged to give her out for his daughter. The confessor had reserved the right of disclosing the secret in case of extremity. The supposed father was now dead; Sperata was living with an old lady; we were aware that a love of song and music had already led our brother to her; and on his again requiring us to undo his former bond, that he might engage himself by a new one, it was necessary that we should, as soon as possible, apprise him of the danger he stood in.
  • “He viewed us with a wild contemptuous look. ‘Spare your idle tales,’ cried he, ‘for children and credulous fools; from me, from my heart, they shall not tear Sperata; she is mine. Recall, I pray you, instantly, your frightful spectre, which would but harass me in vain. Sperata is not my sister; she is my wife!’ He described to us, in rapturous terms, how this heavenly girl had drawn him out of his unnatural state of separation from his fellow-creatures into true life; how their spirits accorded like their voices; how he blessed his sufferings and errors, since they had kept clear of women, till the moment when he wholly and forever gave himself to this most amiable being. We were shocked at the discovery, we deplored his situation, but we knew not how to help ourselves, for he declared with violence, that Sperata had a child by him within her bosom. Our confessor did whatever duty could suggest to him, but by this means he only made the evil worse. The relations of nature and religion, moral rights and civil laws, were vehemently attacked and spurned at by our brother. He considered nothing holy but his relation Sperata; nothing dignified but the names of father and wife. ‘These alone,’ cried he, ‘are suitable to nature; all else is caprice and opinion. Were there not noble nations which admitted marriage with a sister? Name not your gods! You never name them but when you wish to befool us, to lead us from the paths of nature, and, by scandalous constraint, to transform the noblest inclinations into crimes. Unspeakable are the perplexities, abominable the abuses, into which you force the victims whom you bury alive.
  • “‘I may speak, for I have suffered like no other; from the highest, sweetest feeling of enthusiasm, to the frightful deserts of utter powerlessness, vacancy, annihilation and despair; from the loftiest aspirations of preternatural existence, to the most entire unbelief, unbelief in myself. All these horrid grounds of the cup, so flattering at the brim, I have drained; and my whole being was poisoned to its core. And now, when kind Nature, by her greatest gift, by love, has healed me; now, when in the arms of a heavenly creature, I again feel that I am, that she is, that out of this living union a third shall arise and smile in our faces; now ye open up the flames of your Hell, of your Purgatory, which can only singe a sick imagination; ye oppose them to the vivid, true, indestructible enjoyment of pure love! Meet us under these cypresses, which turn their solemn tops to heaven; visit us among those espaliers where the citrons and pomegranates bloom beside us, where the graceful myrtle stretches out its tender flowers to us; and then venture to disturb us with your dreary, paltry nets which men have spun!’
  • “Thus for a long time he persisted in a stubborn disbelief of our story; and when we assured him of its truth, when the confessor himself asseverated it, he did not let it drive him from his point. ‘Ask not the echoes of your cloisters, not your mouldering parchments, not your narrow whims and ordinances! Ask Nature and your heart; she will teach you what you should recoil from; she will point out to you with the strictest finger, over what she has pronounced her everlasting curse. Look at the lilies: do not husband and wife shoot forth on the same stalk. Does not the flower, which bore them, hold them both? And is not the lily the type of innocence; is not their sisterly union fruitful? When Nature abhors, she speaks it aloud; the creature that shall not be is not produced; the creature that lives with a false life is soon destroyed. Unfruitfulness, painful existence, early destruction, these are her curses, the marks of her displeasure. It is only by immediate consequences that she punishes. Look around you; and what is prohibited, what is accursed, will force itself upon your notice. In the silence of the convent, in the tumult of the world, a thousand practices are consecrated and revered, while her curse rests on them. On stagnant idleness as on overstrained toil, on caprice and superfluity as on constraint and want, she looks down with mournful eyes: her call is to moderation; true are all her commandments, peaceful all her influences. The man who has suffered as I have done has a right to be free. Sperata is mine; death alone shall take her from me. How I shall retain her, how I may be happy, these are your cares! This instant I go to her, and part from her no more.’
  • “He was for proceeding to the boat, and crossing over to her: we restrained him entreating that he would not take a step, which might produce the most tremendous consequences. He should recollect, we told him, that he was not living in the free world of his own thoughts and ideas; but in a constitution of affairs, whose ordinances and relations had become inflexible as laws of nature. The confessor made us promise not to let him leave our sight, still less our house: after this he went away, engaging to return ere long. What we had foreseen took place: reason had made our brother strong, but his heart was weak; the earlier impressions of religion rose on him, and dreadful doubts along with them. He passed two fearful nights and days: the confessor came again to his assistance, but in vain! His enfranchised understanding acquitted him: his feelings, religion, all his usual ideas declared him guilty.
  • “One morning we found his chamber empty: on the table lay a note, in which he signified that, as we kept him prisoner by force, he felt himself entitled to provide for his freedom; that he meant to go directly to Sperata; he expected to escape with her, and was prepared for the most terrible extremities, should any separation by attempted.
  • “The news of course affrighted us exceedingly; but the confessor bade us be at rest. Our poor brother had been narrowly enough observed: the boatman, in place of taking him across, proceeded with him to his cloister. Fatigued with watching for the space of four-and-twenty hours, he fell asleep, as the skiff began to rock him in the moonshine; and he did not awake, till he saw himself in the hands of his spiritual brethren; he did not recover from his amazement, till he heard the doors of the convent bolting behind him.
  • “Sharply touched at the fate of our brother, we reproached the confessor for his cruelty; but he soon silenced or convinced us by the surgeon’s reason, that our pity was destructive to the patient. He let us know that he was not acting on his own authority, but by order of the bishop and his chapter; that by this proceeding, they intended to avoid all public scandal, and to shroud the sad occurrence under the veil of a secret course of discipline prescribed by the Church. Our sister they would spare; she was not to be told that her lover was her brother. The charge of her was given to a priest, to whom she had before disclosed her situation. They contrived to hide her pregnancy and her delivery. As a mother she felt altogether happy in her little one. Like most of our women, she could neither write, nor read writing: she gave the priest many verbal messages to carry to her lover. The latter, thinking that he owed this pious fraud to a suckling mother, often brought pretended tidings from our brother, whom he never saw; recommending her, in his name, to be at peace; begging of her to be careful of herself and of her child; and for the rest to trust in God.
  • “Sperata was inclined by nature to religious feelings. Her situation, her solitude increased this tendency; the clergyman encouraged it, in order to prepare her by degrees for an eternal separation. Scarcely was her child weaned, scarcely did he think her body strong enough for suffering agony of mind, when he began to paint her fault to her in most terrific colours, to treat the crime of being connected with a priest as a sort of sin against nature, as a sort of incest. For he had taken up the strange thought of making her repentance equal in intensity to what it would have been, had she known the true circumstances of her error. He thereby produced so much anxiety and sorrow in her mind; he so exalted the idea of the Church and of its head before her; showed her the awful consequences, for the weal of all men’s souls, should indulgence in a case like this be granted, and the guilty pair rewarded by a lawful union; signifying too how wholesome it was to expiate such sins in time, and thereby gain the crown of immortality—that at last, like a poor criminal, she willingly held out her neck to the axe, and earnestly entreated that she might forever be divided from our brother. Having gained so much, the clergy left her the liberty (reserving to themselves a certain distant oversight) to live at one time in a convent, at another in her house, according as she afterwards thought good.
  • “Her little girl meanwhile was growing: from her earliest years, she had displayed an extraordinary disposition. When still very young, she could run, and move with wonderful dexterity: she sang beautifully, and learned to play upon the cithern almost of herself. With words, however, she could not express herself; and the impediment seemed rather to proceed from her mode of thought, than from her organs of speech. The feelings of the poor mother to her, in the mean time, were of the most painful kind: the expostulations of the priest had so perplexed her mind, that though she was not quite deranged, her state was far from being sane. She daily thought her crime more terrible and punishable; the clergyman’s comparison of incest, frequently repeated, had impressed itself so deeply, that her horror was not less than if the actual circumstances had been known to her. The priest took no small credit for his ingenuity, with which he had contrived to tear asunder a luckless creature’s heart. It was miserable to behold maternal love, ready to expand itself in joy at the existence of her child, contending with the horrid feeling, that this child should not be there. The two emotions strove together in her soul; love was often weaker than aversion.
  • “The child had long ago been taken from her, and committed to a worthy family residing on the sea-shore. In the greater freedom, which the little creature enjoyed here, she soon displayed her singular delight in climbing. To mount the highest peaks, to run long the edges of the ships, to imitate in all their strangest feats the rope-dancers, whom she often saw in the place, seemed a natural tendency in her.
  • “To practise these things with the greater ease, she liked to change clothes with boys: and though her foster parents thought this highly blameable and unbecoming, we bade them indulge her as much as possible. Her wild walks and leapings often led her to a distance; she would lose her way, and be long from home, but she always came back. In general, as she returned, she used to set herself beneath the columns in the portal of a country house in the neighbourhood: her people now had ceased to look for her; they waited for her. She would there lie resting on the steps: then run up and down the large hall, looking at the statues; after which, if nothing specially detained her, she used to hasten home.
  • “But at last our confidence was balked, and our indulgence punished. The child went out, and did not come again: her little hat was found swimming on the water, near the spot where a torrent rushed down into the sea. It was conjectured that, in clambering among the rocks, her foot had slipped; all our searching could not find the body.
  • “The thoughtless tattle of her house-mates soon communicated the occurrence to Sperata; she seemed calm and cheerful when she heard it; hinting not obscurely at her satisfaction that God had pleased to take her poor little child to himself, and thus preserved it from suffering or causing some more dreadful misery.
  • “On this occasion, all the fables which are told about our waters came to be the common talk. The sea, it was said, required every year an innocent child: yet it would endure no corpse, but sooner or later throw it to the shore; nay the last joint, though sunk to the lowest bottom, must again come forth. They told the story of a mother, inconsolable because her child had perished in the sea, who prayed to God and his saints to grant her at least the bones for burial. The first storm threw ashore the skull, the next the spine; and after all was gathered, she wrapped the bones in a cloth, and took them to the church: but O! miraculous to tell! as she crossed the threshold of the temple, the packet grew heavier and heavier, and at last, when she laid it on the steps of the altar, the child began to cry and issued living from the cloth. One joint of the right-hand little finger was alone wanting: this too the mother anxiously sought and found; and in memory of the event it was preserved among the other relics of the church.
  • “On poor Sperata these recitals made a deep impression: her imagination took a new flight, and favoured the emotion of her heart. She supposed that now the child had expiated, by its death, both its own sins, and the sins of its parents: that the curse and penalty, which hitherto had overhung them all, was at length wholly removed; that nothing more was necessary, could she only find the child’s bones, that she might carry them to Rome, where upon the steps of the great altar in St. Peter’s, her little girl, again covered with its fair fresh skin, would stand up alive before the people. With its own eyes it would once more look on father and mother; and the Pope, convinced that God and his saints commanded it, would, amid the acclamations of the people, remit the parents their sins, acquit them of their oaths, and join their hands in wedlock.
  • “Her looks and her anxiety were henceforth constantly directed to the sea and the beach. When, at night in the moonshine, the waves were tossing to and fro, she thought every glittering sheet of foam was bringing out her child; and some one about her had to run off, as if to take it up when it should reach the shore.
  • “By day she walked unweariedly along the places where the pebbly beach shelved slowly to the water: she gathered, in a little basket, all the bones which she could find. None durst tell her that they were the bones of animals: the larger ones she buried, the little ones she took along with her. In this employment she incessantly persisted. The clergyman, who, by so unremittingly discharging what he thought his duty, had reduced her to this condition, now stood up for her with all his might. By his influence, the people in the neighbourhood were made to look upon her not as a distracted person, but as one entranced: they stood in reverent attitudes as she walked by, and the children ran to kiss her hand.
  • “To the old woman, her attendant and faithful friend, the secret of Sperata’s guilt was at length imparted by the priest, on her solemnly engaging to watch over the unhappy creature with untiring care, through all her life. And she kept this engagement to the last, with admirable conscientiousness and patience.
  • “Meanwhile we had always had an eye upon our brother. Neither the physicians nor the clergy of his convent would allow us to be seen by him: but, in order to convince us of his being well in some sort, we had leave to look at him as often as we liked, in the garden, the passages, or even through a window in the roof of his apartment.
  • “After many terrible and singular changes, which I shall omit, he had passed into a strange state of mental rest and bodily unrest. He never sat but when he took his harp and played upon it, and then he usually accompanied it with singing. At other times, he kept continually in motion; and in all things he was grown extremely guidable and pliant, for all his passions seemed to have resolved themselves into the single fear of death. You could persuade him to do anything, by threatening him with dangerous sickness or with death.
  • “Besides this singularity of walking constantly about the cloister, a practice which he hinted it were better to exchange for wandering over hill and dale, he talked about an Apparition which perpetually tormented him. He declared, that on awakening, at whatever hour of the night, he saw a beautiful boy standing at the foot of his bed, with a bare knife, and threatening to destroy him. They shifted him to various other chambers of the convent; but he still asserted that the boy pursued him. His wandering to and from became more unrestful: the people afterwards remembered too, that at this time they had often seen him standing at the window looking out upon the sea.
  • “Our poor sister, on the other hand, seemed gradually wasting under the consuming influence of her single thought, of her narrow occupation. It was at last proposed by the physician, that among the bones which she had gathered, the fragments of a child’s skeleton should by degrees be introduced; and so the hapless mother’s hopes kept up. The experiment was dubious; but this at least seemed likely to be gained by it, that when all the parts were got together, she would cease her weary search, and might be entertained with hopes of going to Rome.
  • “It was accordingly resolved on: her attendant changed, by imperceptible degrees, the small remains committed to her with the bones Sperata found. An inconceivable delight arose in the poor sick woman’s heart, when the parts began to fit each other, and the shape of those still wanting could be marked. She had fastened every fragment in its proper place with threads and ribbons; filling up the vacant spaces with embroidery and silk, as is usually done with the relics of saints.
  • “In this way nearly all the bones had been collected; none but a few of the extremities were wanting. One morning, while she was asleep, the physician having come to ask for her, the old attendant, with a view to show him how his patient occupied herself, took away these dear remains from the little chest where they lay in poor Sperata’s bedroom. A few minutes afterwards, they heard her spring upon the floor; she lifted up the cloth and found the chest empty. She threw herself upon her knees; they came and listened to her joyful ardent prayer. ‘Yes!’ exclaimed she, ‘it is true; it was no dream, it is real! Rejoice with me, my friends! I have seen my own beautiful good little girl again alive. She arose and threw the veil from off her; her splendour enlightened all the room; her beauty was transfigured to celestial loveliness; she could not tread the ground, although she wished it. Lightly was she born aloft; she had not even time to stretch her hand to me. There! cried she to me, and pointed to the road where I am soon to go. Yes, I will follow her, soon follow her; my heart is light to think of it. My sorrows are already vanished; the sight of my risen little one has given me a foretaste of the heavenly joys.’
  • “From that time her soul was wholly occupied with prospects of the brightest kind: she gave no farther heed to any earthly object; she took but little food; her spirit by degrees cast off the fetters of the body. At last this imperceptible gradation reached its head unexpectedly: her attendants found her pale and motionless; she opened not her eyes; she was what we call dead.
  • “The report of her vision quickly spread abroad among the people; and the reverential feeling, which she had excited in her lifetime, soon changed, at her death, to the thought that she should be regarded as in bliss, nay as in sanctity.
  • “When we were bearing her to be interred, a crowd of persons pressed with boundless violence about the bier; they would touch her hand; they would touch her garment. In this impassioned elevation, various sick persons ceased to feel the pains by which at other times they were tormented: they looked upon themselves as healed; they declared it, they praised God and his new saint. The clergy were obliged to lay the body in a neighbouring chapel; the people called for opportunity to offer their devotion. The concourse was incredible; the mountaineers, at all times prone to lively and religious feelings, crowded forward from their valleys; the reverence, the wonder, the adoration daily spread and gathered strength. The ordinances of the bishop, which were meant to limit, and in time abolish this new worship, could not be put in execution: every show of opposition raised the people into tumults; every unbeliever they were ready to assail with personal violence. ‘Did not Saint Borromæus,’ cried they, ‘dwell among our forefathers? Did not his mother live to taste the joy of his canonisation? Was not that great figure on the rocks at Arona meant to represent to us, by a sensible symbol, his spiritual greatness? Do not the descendants of his kindred live among us to this hour? And has not God promised ever to renew his miracles among a people that believe?’
  • “As the body, after several days, exhibited no marks of putrefaction, but grew whiter, and as it were translucent, the general faith rose higher and higher. Among the multitude were several cures, which even the sceptical observer was unable to account for, or ascribe entirely to fraud. The whole country was in motion; those who did not go to see it, heard at least no other topic talked of.
  • “The convent, where my brother lived, resounded, like the land at large, with the noise of these wonders; and the people felt the less restraint in speaking of them in his presence, as in general he seemed to pay no heed to anything, and his connexion with the circumstance was known to none of them. But on this occasion, it appeared, he had listened with attention. He conducted his escape with such dexterity and cunning, that the manner of it still remains a mystery. We learned afterwards, that he had crossed the water with a number of travellers; and charged the boatmen, who observed no other singularity about him, above all to have a care lest their vessel overset. Late in the night, he reached the chapel, where his hapless loved one was resting from her woes. Only a few devotees were kneeling in the corners of the place; her old friend was sitting at the head of the corpse; he walked up to her, saluted her, and asked how her mistress was. ‘You see it,’ answered she with some embarrassment. He looked at the corpse with a sidelong glance. After some delay he took its hand. Frightened by its coldness, he in the instant let go: he looked unrestfully around him; then turning to the old attendant: ‘I cannot stay with her at present,’ said he; ‘I have a long, long way to travel; but at the proper time I shall be back: tell her so when she awakens.’
  • “With this he went away. It was a while before we got intelligence of these occurrences: we searched: but all our efforts to discover him were vain. How he worked his way across the mountains, none can say. A long time after he was gone, we came upon a trace of him among the Grisons; but we were too late; it quickly vanished. We supposed that he was gone to Germany; but his weak foot-prints had been speedily obliterated by the war.”